Questions about MSW degree / social worker career

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Mar 12, 2021
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Hi everyone,

I apologize in advance for the lengthy post, but I'm seeking advice as someone who has recently decided to abandon the PhD dream and pursue an MSW instead. I've always known deep down that clinical work was more my passion than research. Upon re-evaluating my true intentions, I believe I can achieve a satisfying career as a social worker while keeping financial expenses at a minimum compared to that of a PsyD. The idea of pursuing social work is relatively new to me, so if anyone in the field can answer some of my questions or provide extra insight, I would really appreciate it!

In my research of the field and degree so far, it seems I would enjoy medical social work and responsibilities related to direct clinical care in a hospital setting, where I can help individuals dealing with complex medical conditions. I would also be interested in crisis intervention and working in the ER doing crisis assessment if possible.

Here are my questions:

1. When applying to MSW programs, should I heavily consider that the location of the program I attend will also be the place I continue my career in? It makes sense that you develop a network through connections made in grad school, but I'm wondering just how common or uncommon it is for MSW graduates to stay in the state they got their degree or move elsewhere. For example, my hometown is Hawaii, but I'm not entirely sure I want to study at UH Manoa since they don't have a clinical concentration. I'm also a resident of California (which has more variety of programs that offer a clinical track), so I'm thinking of applying widely in CA and taking advantage of in-state tuition but potentially moving back to Hawaii for work. Is that a viable plan?

2. I sense that applying to programs from name-brand schools isn't necessarily going to give you a better education and training than perhaps a state school. This is good news for me! I would much rather attend a state school with reasonable tuition costs anyway. What is a good way to measure the quality of MSW programs though? I know when applying to PhD programs in clinical psych, I could pay attention to cohort sizes, licensure rates, APA internship stats, etc., but is there a similar way to measure the quality of MSW programs?

3. This is more of a WAMC... Up until this point, I had been preparing myself to be competitive for fully funded PhD programs in clinical psych. Now that that's out the window, I'm cautiously optimistic that I can still spin the research experiences I've had so far to apply to social work. My research experiences largely focused on the mental health of marginalized groups, and in addition to that, I have 3 years of clinical experience in an outpatient mental health clinic working with individuals experiencing a range of issues like PTSD, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, etc. As an undergrad, I also briefly worked as a behavior technician and as a volunteer at a local non-profit psychosocial rehab setting. Currently though, I am unemployed and just begun volunteering as a crisis counselor for Crisis Text Line. I quit my lab manager role in May due to a toxic PI and frankly needed some time off to heal from that experience. All this is to say, if I continue as I am now, I'm wondering if it's enough for me to get accepted during the next cycle of MSW applications at the end of the year. Can I just continue my hours for CTL, or should I seek other volunteer work to supplement? A paid position would be ideal, but I'm not sure companies will hire someone looking to leave for grad school in a year. I am also slightly unwilling to do another cross-country move. I've already relocated twice in the past 4 years for post-bacc research positions and would prefer to stay living with my parents and save money where I can.

4. Is there anything you didn't know going into an MSW program that you wish you did when you applied?

5. If anyone is willing to share what their typical day looks like as a social worker, I'd love to hear. I know this varies a lot, but I don't have anyone to really ask this at the moment. It would be wonderful to hear your journeys and what you enjoy most about your job.

Thank you to anyone who has read this far. I appreciate any and all responses!!

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I'm a psychologist so I can only provide some general advice.

Your best bet will be a public state university, not just for cost but also likely quality of education. They tend to have programs with the longest history & a public service commitment (training teachers, social workers, nurses, etc). You can look up or ask about continuous accreditation of a program since that's an external entity that is trying to ensure a program is doing well.

A lot of private schools have launched programs of all sorts in recent years to cash in on their branding including social work. I imagine some provide great education but it will be at like 3-5x the cost.

One thing to think about doing your education in a different state and then moving immediately is to look up licensure guidelines with your local board or ask around. Some state boards are very tricky (e.g., they want specific things) while others are a breeze.

As for how to evaluate a program, check out any outcome data provided by programs. In psychology, programs are required to share info about graduates such as % who pass our licensing test, how many get licensed, how long it takes to complete a program, etc. Not sure if similar disclosures are required for MSW. Even if not required, you can certainly ask a program for that info if not publicly available on their website/materials.

I have worked with a lot of social workers in the VA, in outpatient and inpatient settings. Some are 100% therapists. Some are 100% case managers. Some are split. Inpatient medical setting social workers tend to focus more on case management than treatment. And of course, there are lots of other agencies who employ social workers and many do things in community based sites.

Part of your education will be to figure out what setting you want to work in and what type of responsibilities you'd like to have since it can vary so much. Good luck!
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All I can tell you is that I do not recommend Rutger's. It's very expensive so I doubt you were considering it anyway, but that's where I got my MSW and they are ridiculous over there,